Who Do We Serve? (Romans 6:12-23)

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What do you think would be the best job in the world?

Sometimes I like to ask younger people what they want to do when they grow up or leave school. They sometimes give answers like a police officer, ballet dancer, secret agent, footballer, or a whole range of other things. I wonder, though, no matter how old we are, what your ideal job would be. What do you reckon would be the best job in the world?

I am also curious what you think the worst job in the world might be. There used to be a television show called Dirty Jobs where the show’s presenter would talk to people who had some of the most disgusting work you could imagine, and then gave that job a try. Some of the worst jobs he looked at included a sewer inspector, a cow inseminator, a concrete chipper, and a snake researcher who would squeeze out the contents of a snake’s stomach to examine their diet. What is the worst job you can think of?

Now, imagine your life if this was your job. Every day you would get out of bed to go to the worst work you can think of. What would that be like for you? Would you continue doing that job because that is all you know? What if someone offered you the best job you can think of? Would you decide that the job offer must be too good to be true? Would you not want to risk giving up your old job in case it didn’t work out? Would you continue to go back, day after day, to the same dirty, gross work? Or would you take the opportunity and accept the job that had been offered to you?

We can react negatively to Paul’s use of the word slave in Romans 6:12-23, but we need to remember that Paul was writing in a different social context. We reject slavery because it abuses people’s fundamental human rights. We condemn it because it exploits and devalues people who have been made in God’s image and for whom Jesus gave his life. When Paul refers to slavery in the New Testament, I do not believe he is arguing that slavery is an acceptable practice. In Paul’s time it was part of their culture. Today, thankfully, we know better. As we read Romans 6:12-23, we can still learn something from what Paul wrote because, as he explains in verse 19, he uses the practice of slavery as an illustration to teach us something about what it means to live in the reality of God’s grace.

One important difference between slavery in Paul’s time and the way we work today is that slaves didn’t have regular working hours. They weren’t casual, part-time or even full-time employees who could go home at the end of their working day. Slaves were in their situation all day, every day, often for their entire lives. When Paul writes about slavery, he is referring to something that impacted people’s entire existence and defined their identity, belonging and purpose. He wasn’t just talking about a job – he was referring to a way of life.

Paul draws a sharp contrast between two ways of living which is even more dramatic that the contrast between the best and worst jobs we can imagine. On the one hand is a life that is dominated and controlled by sin. Paul doesn’t just think of ‘sin’ as doing something wrong, the way we sometimes do. Instead, he uses words like ‘impurity’ and ‘lawlessness’ (v19 NLT), ‘ashamed’ and ‘death’ (v21 NIV). This gives us a broader understanding of sin as those things in our lives that make us unclean or dirty, that bring shame on us and ultimately take life from us emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, or physically.

In sharp contrast Paul also describes what it means to be a slave to righteousness (v18). This sounds like a contradiction, because when Paul writes about being set free from slavery to sin (vv18,22 NLT) we would assume that people who have been liberated are no longer slaves. This is where we need to remember that Paul seems to be thinking of something that is part of our lives every hour of every day, not just a casual or part-time job. When we become ‘slaves to righteous living’ (v18 NLT), this righteousness becomes part of our being in which we constantly live. ‘Righteous living’ isn’t just about our behaviours or actions. It is who we are as people who have been made right through faith in Jesus.

In the same way that I asked you if you would accept the best job in the world if you had been working in the worst job in the world, Paul is asking his readers if they want to give themselves to righteousness if they had up to that point been working in sin’s household. As we have seen, Paul connects sin with shame, being unclean or dirty, and death. He then describes the qualities of righteous living as holiness and eternal life (vv19,22). This holiness is a big concept and carries with it a range of different meanings. It means to be pure, clean, uncontaminated, set apart for God, or sanctified. It means receiving God’s holiness as a gift and growing to be more like God because one of God’s essential characteristics is holiness. Becoming slaves to righteous living isn’t about following a set of rules or trying harder to be a ‘good’ or ‘nice’ person. Righteous living that leads to holiness is more like having all the filth washed off us when we have spent our working lives as a sewer inspector, and being made clean from all the shame and dirt we used to live in as slaves to sin. The righteousness that leads to holiness is, in Paul’s thinking, living our entire lives in the goodness of God which is reflected through our lives in everything we do and say.

We can live in this righteousness because Jesus has set us free from sin. When Paul writes, ‘now you wholeheartedly obey this teaching we have given you’ (v17 NLT) he is talking about faith in the gospel of Jesus (see Romans 1:5). We are only able to ‘choose to obey God’ (v16 NLT) or ‘offer’ ourselves to the ‘obedience’ of faith (v16 NIV) because Jesus has liberated us from slavery to sin through his life, death and resurrection for us. Slaves had no choice about who they served. They were bought and sold like cattle. As people who have been set free from slavery to sin when Jesus redeemed us or bought us back by giving his life for us on the cross, now we are free to give ourselves and our lives to either sin or righteousness.

We were trapped in shame, dirt, and death because of the debt of our sin. Jesus paid our debt in full by his death on the cross, so now we are free to choose. Do we want to go back to the worst job in the world? Or do we want to step in faith into our most ideal job? Will we go back to slavery to sin with the shame, dirt, and death that it brings? Or will we walk in the obedience of faith into a new reality which gives us holiness and a life that is stronger than death?

More to think about & discuss:

  • What do you think would be the best job in the world? Why do you think it would be so good?
  • What do you think would be the worst job in the world? Why do you think it would be so bad?
  • If you were working in the worst job in the world and someone offered you the best job in the world, would you accept it? Explain why you would do that…
  • Why do you think Paul used the illustration of ‘slavery’ for living in either sin or righteous living? What might be some of the problems with this illustration in our cultural context? What might be another way that Paul could illustrate the same idea to people of our time?
  • Paul contrasts a life of sin with shame, dirt, and death, with righteous living that brings holiness and eternal life. Which sounds better to you? Do you think it might be easier to live in one or the other? Can you explain why you think that…?
  • Why might people find it hard to leave a bad job for a better one? What does that tell us about why some people might find it hard to leave a life of sin for a life of righteousness?
  • What do you imagine a life of righteous living might look like?
  • We are able to live in either sin or righteousness because Jesus has redeemed and liberated us through his life, death and resurrection for us. Why do you think this message of freedom can be such an important part of the gospel of Jesus?
  • As a community of faith, how can we help each other live in righteousness that leads to holiness and eternal life? How might you be able to help someone do that this week?

You can also find a video version of this message by following this link: https://youtu.be/wclr5JQBBc0

God bless!

A Royal Priesthood (1 Peter 2:2-10)

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In the weeks since we have been unable to publicly worship together and I have been posting my messages online, some people have asked if I could say a prayer or give a blessing in the videos. There are a few reasons why I haven’t been doing that which I’m happy to discuss more if you’d like to contact me. This week’s reading from 1 Peter 2:2-10 gives me an opportunity to explain one of my reasons in more detail.

Peter addresses the people who are reading his letter in several ways in this short passage. I want to focus on the way he calls his readers ‘a holy priesthood’ (v5 NIV) and ‘a royal priesthood’ (v9). To understand what Peter is talking about when he uses the term ‘priesthood’ we need to go back to the Old Testament and the sacrificial system of worship in the Tabernacle and then the Temple.

God originally created people to be in relationship with him (Genesis 1 and 2). However, that relationship was broken because of sin (Genesis 3). To establish a way for this relationship to be restored so that the people of Israel could connect with him again, God chose a group of people from the tribe of Levi to be priests (see Exodus chapters 28 and 29). Their role was to stand between God and his people, not to keep them apart but to bring them together. These priests offered sacrifices, firstly in the Tabernacle and then the Temple in Jerusalem, so the community of faith could have access to God and receive his mercy, grace and blessing. Through the ministry of the Old Testament priesthood, God’s chosen people were able to live in relationship with God and receive his goodness.

Then Jesus came and changed everything. Parts of the New Testament, such as the Letter to the Hebrews, refer to Jesus as our great High Priest who fully opened a new way for all people to have access to God’s presence and blessing (Hebrews 10:19-25). He did not do this by offering the same sacrifices as the Old Testament priests. Instead, Jesus offered himself as the ultimate sacrifice. Through Jesus’ death on the cross, Jesus took away all sin and everything else which gets in the way of a relationship of love with our Father in heaven. Jesus, who is fully human and fully God, stands between humanity and God as our great High Priest to bring us together and unite us as one. This ended the Old Testament priesthood and gave all people access to God through faith in Jesus.

Peter uses this picture of the Old Testament priesthood to tell us that, because we are God’s chosen people through faith in Jesus, we become the way that God connects with the world and people can have access to the presence and blessing of God. We are united with Jesus through faith, and so, just as he stands between God and humanity to bring us together as our great High Priest, now we also stand with him between God and humanity to bridge the gap and connect the world with God’s presence and blessing. As a holy and royal priesthood through faith in Jesus, God gives us as the body of Christ, the holy Christian church, the responsibility and the opportunity to represent God to the world, and the world to God.

Peter says there are two important ways in which we do this. The first is in verse 5 when he refers to Christian as a ‘holy priesthood’ and talks about ‘offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ’ (NIV). He uses similar language to Paul in Romans 12:1 who encourages his readers ‘to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God’ (NIV). We can offer our whole lives to God to thank him for the life of Jesus he gives us through faith. These ‘spiritual sacrifices’ can also mean acts of worship such as our prayers for each other, the Church, our nation and the world, in fact anything we offer God in faith and love for everything he has given us in Jesus.

Peter then writes that as ‘a royal priesthood’ we can ‘declare the praises of him who called (us) out of darkness into his wonderful light’ (v9 NIV). Our spiritual sacrifices are how we bring the world to God. We also bring God to the world by declaring his praises to the world. Praising God is more than telling God how good he is or how much we love him. We also praise God by telling others about the good that God has done for us. In particular, we declare God’s praises by telling others what he has done for us in Jesus – his love grace, mercy, peace, hope, and more. We function as God’s priests when we tell others about how God calls us out of the dark places of life into the light of his love, joy, peace and hope through faith in Jesus.

It is vital that we understand that this is not just the job of our pastor or minister. One of the reasons why I am not including prayers, benedictions or blessings in my messages is that you do not need me to do that for you. In public worship our congregation has called me to do these things on behalf of our community of faith, but God calls every Christian to function as his priests by offering spiritual sacrifices like prayers and declaring God’s praises by blessing others. I see this time when we are unable to worship together as an opportunity God has given us to do what Paul says is the role of the pastor in Ephesians 4:11-13, namely to equip Christ’s people to do the work of ministry. It is not the job of the pastor to function as a priest for you. According to Ephesians 4:11-13, the pastor’s role is to equip God’s people for the work of ministry so that you can function as God’s holy and royal priesthood by bringing the world to God through your spiritual sacrifices and by bringing God to the world as you declare his praises in your lives.

So pray for each other and for the world. Bless each other and bring God’s blessings to the world. Declare God’s praises by speaking words of grace and love and forgiveness and peace in Jesus to each other. Stand between God and the world, not to keep them apart but to bring them together as you offer spiritual sacrifices and declare God’s praises. Be the holy and royal priesthood God has chosen and called you to be. Because right now, with everything going on in the world and in people’s lives, we, as God’s holy and royal priesthood, have an unprecedented opportunity to bring a struggling and hurting world to God, and God’s infinite and perfect goodness to the world.
More to think about & discuss:

  • Have you ever been in a situation where you have been able to bring two people together? Share your story and describe what it was like for you to be able to bring them together.
  • When you think about the role of priests in the church, what comes to mind? How is that similar or different to the role of the Old Testament priests? How is it similar or different to what Jesus does for us as our great High Priest?
  • Can you imagine yourself in the biblical role of a priest? Explain why or why not…
  • How much do you rely on your pastor to do the work of a priest by offering spiritual sacrifices and declaring God’s praises for you? What is your reaction to the idea of being equipped to do this more in your life? Do you like the possibilities it offers you or not so much? Please explain why…
  • What are some spiritual sacrifices you can be offering God in your life?
  • How can you declare God’s praises in your life this week?

The Communion of Saints (Ephesians 1:11-23)

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Since the early centuries of the Christian movement, followers of Jesus have said the words of the Apostles’ Creed together. This confession of faith serves God’s people in a few ways. It outlines the basic content of what we believe as Jesus’ disciples. It makes a declaration to the world of who we are and who we believe God is. The Apostles’ Creed also unites us with people around the world and across time who share our common faith. Confessing the Creed signifies that we belong to a community of faith that transcends time, space and denominational differences. It unites all Christians as one Church.

There is a lot in the Apostles’ Creed that we can reflect on and learn from. As we celebrated the Festival of All Saints on Sunday, there was one part in the Third Article that I thought it would be good to think about more: The Communion of Saints. It can easy to say the words of the Creed without giving much thought to what they mean. When we confess our faith in the Communion of Saints, however, there is a lot of depth in those few words.

Firstly, the Communion of Saints is about our identity. Most people that I talk to think of saints as people who have done a lot of good things in their lives. in a common way of thinking, sainthood is something we can aspire to and achieve by doing a lot of ‘good’ things. However, the New Testament gives us a very different idea of what a saint is. Six letters of St Paul begin by addressing the recipients of those letters as ‘God’s holy people’ or ‘saints’ (see Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Philippians 1:1; Colossians 1:2). Paul explains in Ephesians 1:11-23 that sainthood or holiness was God’s gift to his readers when they were united with Christ (v11 NLT) through faith by the power of the Holy Spirit (vv13,14 NLT). Here and in other places of the New Testament we can read that God gives us his holiness as a gift through the Holy Spirit on account of what Jesus has done for us in his life, death and resurrection.

Sainthood, or holiness, becomes the foundation of our identity in Christ. No matter what the world, other people or our own hearts might say to us or about us, we can always come back to God’s promise to us that we are his holy children through faith in Jesus. In those times when our sense of identity takes a beating, or when we have a negative view of ourselves, God’s promise to us is that we are saints, his holy people, because of Jesus’ redemptive love for us which makes us new and clean.

This leads us on to the second important aspect of the Communion of Saints. If God has made each of us saints by giving us the holiness of Jesus through his Spirit, and if he has done the same thing for every other believer, then we are united as one in our faith. This is what Paul means when he writes, ‘the church is his body; it is made full and complete by Christ, who fills all things everywhere with himself’ (Eph 1:23 NLT).

The Christian church, the body of Christ, is the community of God’s holy people which exists across time and space and into eternity. The words communion and community are closely connected, so we can think of the communion of saints as the community of God’s holy people. This community is the place where we can grow as God’s holy people as we encounter the reality of God’s love and grace in relationship with other believers. Following Jesus was never meant to be an individual exercise. Jesus’ command to love one another only makes sense when it is lived out in relationship with others. The communion of saints, then gives us a context to not only love other holy children of God, but to be loved by them so we can live together in the reality of Jesus’ life-changing grace.

This kind of community is vitally important in our time and place. I’ve heard it said a number of times that our digital age has made us more connected than ever before, but at the same time people are lonelier than ever before. People in the developed world are starved for real community where we can extend and encounter grace, love, forgiveness, hope, joy, and so much more through meaningful, Christ-centred relationships. Confessing our faith in the Communion of Saints means that we can find a place where we belong in a community of God’s holy people which transcends our differences and unites us as the living body of the risen Jesus in the world.

This brings me to a third aspect of the Communion of Saints. As the community of God’s holy people, we have a new purpose for our existence. We live in a broken world where people are alone and hurting, relationships are easily fractured, where virtual or fake attempts at community result in people feeling more isolated and lost. As God gifts us with his community of holy people, we have something good to give the people of our world. The Communion of Saints is also God’s gift to the world so that people can find a sense of who they are, where they fit and what they’re here for in relationship with God through their relationship with us.

The Communion of Saints is the community of God’s holy people that he calls into existence to praise and glorify him (Eph 1:14 NLT) by being part of his redemptive mission in the world. We can praise and glorify God by singing songs in worship, but we also praise and glorify God for his saving love in Jesus by living as God’s holy people in the world, bringing his goodness, grace and healing love to the people around us. God gifts his community of holy people in the world with the purpose of living in ways that are made holy through faith and love, and embracing others in the community of God’s holy people so they can find their identity, belonging and purpose through faith in Jesus and in relationship with us.

The next time you confess the Apostles’ Creed, I encourage you to keep some of these things in mind. There is a lot of depth in these few words. They talk about who we are as people who are gifted with Jesus’ holiness through his Spirit, where we belong as the community of God’s holy people, and what we’re here for as we praise and glorify God by embracing others in the community of holy people. The Communion of Saints is God’s gift to us. It is also his challenge to us. As we grow in relationship with him and with his people in this community, we also have the opportunity to gift God’s community of holy people to others.